It’s the familiar cadence. Two weeks of practice. A scrimmage or two. Another week of practice. And then the season-opening game.
After a year when the world was turned upside-down, high school football is back again. Monday marks the first day of practice for North Carolina’s high school teams.
Things are back to normal — or are they?
The sounds of whistles, shouts and football will be heard on the state’s practice fields — along with the background noise, the hum of the COVID-19 Delta variant. With COVID numbers climbing and masks becoming the norm again, high school football coaches say 2021 isn’t necessarily “back to normal.”
“Now we know it can be taken away from us,” says Harding University High head football coach Van Smith. “I would hope we’ve learned to appreciate whatever we’re given.”
With many coaches and players vaccinated against the virus, the hope is that the season will begin normally on the week of Aug. 20 and proceed to the state championships in December.
In the 2020-21 academic year, the state’s private schools and South Carolina’s public schools played in the fall, with a scattering of virus-caused cancellations. North Carolina’s public schools had a spring season. Everyone played abbreviated schedules.
Coaches and athletic trainers adopted new health-related protocols in 2020-21. The job of cleaning uniforms and locker rooms became much more difficult.
But for schools like Harding, where more than 95 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches due to low income levels, surviving COVID-19 has extra layers of difficulty.
“Many of our players’ parents lost their jobs in the pandemic,” Smith says. “Sometimes, the students took jobs, to help pay the bills.”
He says putting together a team in the spring at schools like Harding was an adventure.
“A number of our students stayed with remote learning full-time,” he says. “We never saw them in school. Our coaches had to drive and pick them up for practice, then take them home.”
The Rams finished 0-7 and were outscored 306-20. Smith assembled a 40-player roster with 14 freshmen and 13 sophomores.
“I’ve never gone 0-for,” said Smith, entering his 33rd season as a coach. “But we learned a lot about football and about ourselves.”
Junior quarterback Diego Parks says the Rams learned “about being a family. We see who’s beside us. We know our family is worth fighting for.”
‘It’s not over’
So is it over now, with probably half the community fully vaccinated and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other systems returning to in-person learning?
Not necessarily for schools like Harding, says Smith.
“It’s not over,” he says. “Some of our players are still needed to work. And some are working so they can afford the things that other (more affluent) students have easier access to. They want to make money, for the shoes that the other kids have.”
Even the return to in-person school might not be what you’d expect.
“I suspect some of our kids will remain in remote learning,” Smith says.
Many schools practice in the morning, before it gets hot. Harding, and other schools like it, practice in the evening.
“Some of our kids are working in the morning, or their parents are working,” Smith says. “Our kids don’t have a ride. Only one or two of our players drive.”
But, he says, Harding football will be back on the field this fall.
“We play with who we have,” he says. “We have some very good young talent. They took some knocks in the spring, but we learned from that.”
Parks, the quarterback, says having a summer conditioning program will help.
“We were a little behind in the spring because we didn’t have much time in the weight room,” he says. “We should be better in that area this fall.”
Some old problems … but hope
And some of the pre-COVID issues remain. Facilities remain unequal across the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Nearby Berry Academy has a turf field, and a major stadium renovation project is under way at West Charlotte High.
At Harding, athletics director Bryant Bailey is forced to do emergency surgery on the field if it rains within 24 hours of kickoff.
“I get on the tractor, and we put down Quick-Dry,” Bailey says. “The field doesn’t drain well.”
But Smith and Bryant are quick to note that the Rams have an updated weight room, thanks to a 2015 donation by former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and actors Kevin Hart and Ice Cube.
And there are memories of the 2017 season, when Harding shocked the state by rolling to the 4A state championship.
“We know it can be done,” Smith says. “We finished second in a 7-on-7 event at Mountain Island Charter. We have talent at the skill positions. Depth on the line might be an issue. And we’re still young. But we know it can be done.”
Bryant says, “We are in the process of turning this around.”
Smith has a simpler goal. “It would be nice to have a regular season,” he says.
2021 prep football dates
Monday: Practices begin.
Aug. 7: First contact permitted in practice.
Aug. 11: First date for scrimmages.
Week of Aug. 20: Regular season can begin
Oct. 29: Final regular-season games
Nov. 5: Playoffs begin for public and private schools
Nov. 12 and 19: Private school championships.
Dec. 10-11: Public school championships.
Changes this season: Schools are permitted 10 games, one fewer than in recent years. There will be four classes of playoffs – not eight, as in recent seasons. And public school conferences across North Carolina have been realigned.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle